Saturday, July 26, 2014

Rochester’s Climate Change efforts: We’re going to need a bigger boat

 

CCBiggerBoatSGloating over our recent spate of fantastic July weather, as a local weather station Facebooked recently (NO 90 DEGREE DAYS IN JULY SO FAR… “Are you missing the heat?”), is pathetic. More pathetic are the 80+ folks who commented how wonderful that was—many thumbing their noses at Climate Change.

It’s hard to believe that a local news station is promoting Climate Change denial by bragging about a cool July in Rochester without placing this anomaly in the context of the world’s rising temperatures. Last month, according to NOAA was one of the hottest June’s ever. As for July, we don’t know how hot it will get. But consider this speculation about the rest of this summer from The Guardian: “Will 2014 be the hottest year on record?

Climate Change is a global phenomenon, and the trajectory is that the atmosphere is warming up 10 times faster since the Industrial Revolution than the previous 10.000 years. That one place, Rochester, NY, may be experiencing a cooler summer does not disprove Climate Change, and it’s sad that a local media would encourage this deceit. Actually, in our area, temperatures in the summer over the past thirty years have been going steadily up--overall. Climate Change is climate disruption, where the rise in increasing temperatures will ratchet up and down, but mostly it will jerk upwards. While it is nice to have this temperate summer (so far), it is folly to assume that a cool spell in one particular region of the world means that Climate Change is a hoax. (Doesn’t anyone check the Internet anymore? The world is bigger than just Rochester. )

Perhaps it wasn’t the intent of our local media to disparage Climate Change. Maybe they were merely glorying in the happiness of a perfect summer day. But the failure to properly place our cool summer in the context of this worldwide crisis is becoming a signature form of Climate Change denial in the USA. A recent poll states that “… U.S. Leads The World… In Climate Denial”. That is to say the #1 country responsible for Climate Change is the #1 country in climate change denial. Most of the manmade greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere right now are from the developed nations. CO2, which is the main GHG, stays in the atmosphere for a long time. The warming the world must address and endure now is from past CO2 accumulations. Sure, China is emitting more CO2 right now, but the GHGs that have warmed our atmosphere thus far are ours. We ought to take responsibility for that. If moral responsibility is not a popular idea, then we should at least act in our own self-interest and begin adapting.

In Rochester Climate Change denial expresses itself by…, not expressing itself. We presumably have heard of Climate Change, but like a deer in the headlights, we cannot make head or tail of it. We think that because Climate Change isn’t actually running over us at the moment, we have enough time to consider all the usual priorities and ignore the approaching semi.

For example, ACT Rochester (part of Rochester Area Community Foundation), arguably the largest local non-profit leader on local planning data, eliminated environmental concerns in their data sets altogether. Presumably, they eliminated the environmental aspect of our lives because they couldn’t find climate change indicators in our region. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to have no lack of data on a national scale: ‘Climate Change Indicators in the United States”. Also, GrowWNY (part of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo) has no problem going full throttle on environmental issues, including Climate Change information and events. Not to mention, there are already many presently observable indicators in our local climate and expert predictions of what is coming shortly for our region.

So yeah, it would be nice to have useful data on Climate Change indicators in the Rochester region so our local government, grant writers, community leaders, and business leaders can respond to the real world, a world where this worldwide crisis will become the top priority. To be sure, Climate Change will engulf all other local issues—“Arts, Culture, and Leisure, Children and Youth, Community Engagement, Economy, Education, Financial Self-Sufficiency, Health, Housing and Public Safety” (ACT Rochester) whether we prioritize them properly or not.

The City of Rochester itself is addressing Climate Change. But everything is so secretive that you wouldn’t even know that Rochester cared about Climate Change—which is weird because it’s the job of our government to get on the bully pulpit about looming concerns. Rochester quietly participates in the state’s Climate Smart Communities program, the leading New York State program to address Climate Change. The city’s ‘bikeROCHESTER’ program is a phenomenal program to transform our community’s transportation system to a more sustainable one, but they don’t even mention Climate Change on the website. And though we keep hearing that Rochester is coming out with a climate plan, it never seems to materialize. This is a sort of Rochester denial that gives only a timid nod to this inconvenient problem and then walks (or bikes) on by.

Rochester’s Monroe County barely acknowledges Climate Change at all. Greening up the fleet (county-owned vehicles), and presumably getting a lot of awards for that, is about as far as their token efforts go. Other than that, ‘Climate Change’ doesn’t even show up in their website’s search engine. When addressing a Climate Change related issue, like reducing algae on Ontario Beach, our county’s solution is to attack the symptoms, not the cause—which is what will continue to happen if you don’t understand Climate Change.

“The county is building a pump system. When the algae gets bad, county workers will use a tractor fitted with a boom and skimmer to push all of the muck into the corner where the beach and the pier meet. They are installing a suction head there, which will connect to a pump and a pipe through the middle of the Charlotte pier. Long story short: the system will suck the algae out of the corner and pump it over into the Genesee River. The flow of the river will disperse the algae farther out in the lake.” County's algae solution: suck it up  (July 23, 2014) Rochester City Newspaper

Another way to deal with algae problems at Ontario Beach is to plan for Climate Change, as warming affects algae growth. Check out EPA’s three-page document on this: “Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms We are pretty good at getting rid of the symptoms of environmental problems (like shunting algae away from our beaches) but not so good at addressing the underlying causes, like dealing with the rise in algae growth due to warming waters and more phosphorus (non-point pollution of fertilizers) pollution throughout our Great Lakes and Finger Lakes.

Climate Change is about planning. But we cannot plan for it in Rochester or anywhere else if we continue to deny it—even in the lukewarm, half-hearted way that denial gets expressed in Rochester. We’ll just continue hammering away at all the symptoms of Climate Change, an uneven decline in public health, a transportation system too expensive to afford, and getting bigger pumps with bigger pipes to suck the annoying symptoms of Climate Change further away.

However, when the enormity the threat finally dawns on Rochesterians, we are going to realize that we’re "going to need a bigger boat". But there won’t be one around because we didn’t plan properly.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The market won’t save us from Climate Change, but government might

 

CCHorrorSIf it were the case that Climate Change had a prayer of being solved by the responsibility of consumer choices, I suspect that ameliorative effect would have kicked in by now. It hasn’t. Nor is it likely given that this unfounded faith in the invisible hand of the free market has put us on an unstoppable trajectory of environmental (life support system) collapse. The great experiment in replacing our moral system with our economic system has failed. The predicted temperature increase from Climate Change for Rochester NY is between 3°C and 5°C (5.4°F and 9.0°F). (5°C above pre-industrial warming is probably game over.)

“Collapse” is not hyperbole when prioritizing this crisis. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report released last Thursday (7/17/2014) ‘State of the Climate in 2013 states that in 2013 “Greenhouse gases continued to climb, warm temperature trends continued near the Earth’s surface, sea surface temperatures increased, sea level continued to rise, the Arctic continued to warm; sea ice extent remained low, Antarctic sea ice extent reached record high for second year in a row; and South Pole station set record high temperature…”.1 Folks, Climate Change is happening and it’s happening now and for all the sound and fury from the deniers, it’s jeopardizing our existence.

The belief that our economy will magically address Climate Change has been dealt a fatal blow with the news that Australia’s new leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, killed the Carbon Tax. The Carbon Tax is not a “useless, destructive tax”2, nor is it a penalty for polluters. It is payment for environmental goods and services rendered. Australia’s rollback of the Carbon Tax proves that the marketplace only works when it doesn’t have to include the externalities, the costs of exploiting our natural resources. If anything good can come from abolishing the Carbon Tax in Australia, it must be the lesson that when the public finally gets a Carbon Tax installed, they’ve got to make it stick—voting for science, election year after election year. The threat by those who will always take advantage of the inconvenient changes that will come from transitioning to a system where the environment doesn’t get paid for, to where it does, will always loom. Climate Change and environmental degradation are the price we have paid for an economic system that has for centuries been piling up a debt it refuses to pay.

This is why President Obama’s long and tortuous climb up to the bully pulpit to address Climate Change is so important: Without political leadership, neither the marketplace nor our government can summon the economic strategy or political will to maintain the roads and bridges, the infrastructure, that give our gas-guzzlers something to move on.

The second phase (the first was the Clean Power Plan) of Obama’s National Climate Assessment addresses the problem of infrastructure and Climate Change:

Preparing Communities for the Impacts of Climate Change | We've been talking a lot recently about the need to rebuild and strengthen our nation's infrastructure. As the President has made clear, a world-class infrastructure system is a vital part of a top-performing economy. But there's another important reason why we need to rebuild our infrastructure: climate change. Communities across America need more resilient infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of climate change -- like more extreme weather and increased flooding. That's part of the reason why the President established the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience last November. The Task Force, made up of 26 governors, mayors, and county and tribal officials from across the country, advises the President on how the federal government can best help American communities dealing with the effects of climate change. Today, the Task Force came to the White House for their fourth and final meeting, and will give the President final recommendations this fall. (July 16, 2014) White House

Granted, US politics has made us stupid and our economic system has rendered us blind to our life support system. But if we don’t get the President’s message on infrastructure and Climate Change, we’re screwed. Not only do we have an aging infrastructure for (water, wastewater, sewage, telecommunications, and transportation) that all need serious repairs, we need those infrastructures to be ready for the extremes of Climate Change—something that every climate study says must happen.  

Only your government, with you behind it 100%, can deliver on the kind of very expensive, long-term commitments this will take. Remember: The marketplace does not build roads and bridges; your tax dollars do. The market system is an amoral system we’ve used to improve our existence, which it admittedly has, but at a very high cost. It needs a firm hand to guide it, and that’s why government leaders who think it is their job is to find a balance between the marketplace and environmental health are failing us too. It isn’t the job of government to suck up to industry; it’s the job of our government to tame our excesses so we don’t self-destruct. Among other things, of course.

This tendency to view our relationship with our life support system as simply the operations of the market pervades. We here in New York State, despite the pivotal role that energy plays in addressing Climate Change, still focus only on energy costs to the consumer:

Report: N.Y. ranks 38th in energy efficiency New York ranks among the most expensive states for energy bills, a new report from WalletHub shows. WalletHub—a social website launched by Evolution Finance that offers financial tools and information for consumers and small-business owners—ranked New York 38th among the 50 states and District of Columbia based on energy efficiency. The report, 2014’s Most & Least Energy-Expensive States, looked at six key metrics, including electricity cost, consumption, natural gas prices and fuel prices. New Yorkers average $365 a month in energy costs, including electricity costs of $126 and natural gas costs of $80. Drivers pay some $160 a month for gasoline, on average. (July 14, 2014) Rochester Business Journal

If it’s true that New York ranks among the most expensive states for energy bills, then it’s the wrong metric. If the only way you measure energy cost is by using energy bills, then you don’t see a lot of things. You don’t see fossil fuels warming up the planet. You don’t see that using more renewable energy (wind and solar) for more of our electricity will increasingly lower your bills and do less harm to our environment. You don’t see that there are other ways to get around Rochester besides driving gas guzzlers, like active transportation (walking and bicycling), or moving out of the suburbs and near places you need to go. You don’t see that there are many federal and state grants around to lower your energy cost and improve energy efficiency. You don’t see energy conservation as a real option in a scheme that requires endless growth. All you see from using energy bills for your energy-use metric is the need to get your energy bills down. You will never consider alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning energy sources because the moral issues will be invisible to you. You’ll see only your electric bill.

The Carbon Tax that Mr. Abbott so blithely killed in a country ravaged by wildfires and sea rise due to Climate Change might well have been the last chance his country had in taming the market system. For to be quite blunt, there’s just no reasoning with Mather Nature.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Addressing the “anti-Frackers are hypocrites!” charge

 

CCHipocriteSThe question, as we move deeper into Climate Change, is not how many anti-frackers in New York State heat their homes with natural gas (It’s one of the ways anti-frackers are dismissed. See the comments on my article:“Aftershocks of NYS landmark decision on local Fracking bans”). The question is: how can we stop business as usual with fossil-fuel-based energy and move to energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases?

Too many pro-frackers dismiss those who message that we need to stop digging for more gas and oil because at the core of their argument pro-frackers don’t believe in the science of climate—though they tend to believe in the ‘science’ of present-day economics, and presumably, the ‘science’ of drilling for gas and oil. Pro-frackers cherry-pick their way through science and only pick those arguments that buttress their belief in fossil-fuel business as usual. The science says overwhelmingly that our use of fossil fuel is warming up the atmosphere faster than it has warmed in at least 10,000 years—which is faster than most animals and plants can adapt, and probably faster than we can adapt also.

However, New York State is fully capable of transitioning to renewable energy. Read “Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight” (M.Z. Jacobson et al. / Energy Policy 57, 2013) As for the argument from those who are hell bent on hammering the present need and existence of fossil fuels, no one thinks that the transformation from fossil fuels to renewables can be done immediately—it’s a change of direction we need from an energy source that does destroy our environment to one that doesn’t. The quicker the better.

But too many pro-fossil fuel folks are comforted that those who think we must move to renewable energy are simply a bunch of hypocrites, driving on gasoline, and heating their homes with natural gas, while crabbing about fossil fuels. This argument has many problems, not to mention it’s depressingly disturbing that it is still being used with such distain even now as CO2 reaches 400ppm. Here’s the problem:

  • The renewable industry has to compete with oil and gas industries that get billions of tax subsidies each year.
  • Oil and gas industries spend millions preaching to the public that we can solve Climate Change with fossil fuels—which is a lie.
  • The argument ‘if you heat your home with gas and rail against Fracking you must be a hypocrite’ is ludicrous because all of us are condemned to a fossil-fuel based transportation, economic, and energy system. No other energy zeitgeist has a chance! It’s the whole point about needing a revolution, changing quickly and on a large enough scale so that our energy system doesn’t heat up the planet more.
  • Local media still views NYS energy options during Climate Change through the lens of the Fracking fight. Rather than inform the public that there are many other options to address our energy needs during a rapid warming, the local media are still stuck on only the legal and political ramifications of this controversial fossil-fuel drilling technique.
  • There should be no Fracking debate at all. We are all losers if we continue to debate Fracking in the midst of a warming planet. In this sense Climate Change is like no other issue. Historically we have battled each other for eons to decide on positions where neither side will give. But on the issue of Climate Change, the physics of how our planet uses energy from the sun compels all of us towards the same result—regardless of what intellectual or belief positions we might hold. It is delay that will doom us; the Fracking issue is only a side-show.

The great tragedy of this six-year Fracking debacle in New York State is that it has stolen everyone’s attention from the real problem—energy and Climate Change. There’s a great danger that humanity’s inability to see the big picture and only focus on the political and economic fights stirred up by the self-interests of a few will render our life support system null and void.

Bill McKibben, the great environmentalist and writer, gets at the heart of this hypocrisy issue:

“Hypocrisy is when you say one thing and do another at the same time. Growth is when you weigh new information and then change your thinking and behavior.” (We Want People to Change Their Minds, July 10, 2014, The Huffington Post)

If you don’t understand the Climate Change issue, you tend to think only the economic issues have merit. The fossil fuel industry and those who pledge allegiance to it, just like the tyrants of old, want it all—all the land for drilling, all the transportation options, all the money—and none of the responsibilities of this world crisis. We in New York State have the possibility of a fantastic economic boom if we keep our water free from being Fracked, as eventually climate refugees will come to our state from the ravages of Climate Change in their regions. We can change.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Aftershocks of NYS landmark decision on local Fracking bans

 

CCFrackCleanNYSThe New York State Court of Appeals ruling on Home Rule that upholds local Fracking bans in Dryden (Tompkins County) and Middlefield (Otsego County) has made the “170+ fracking bans adopted by NYS municipalities legally incontestable”1. This ruling could embolden other communities to stand up to the Fracking bullying by the oil and gas industries who try to force municipalities and states to drill for more fossil fuels in a time of Climate Change.

The Dryden town supervisor, Mary Ann Sumne, said, “The oil and gas industry tried to bully us into backing down, but we took our fight all the way to New York’s highest court.” She added, “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.” (New York Towns Can Prohibit Fracking, State’s Top Court Rules, 6/302014, New York Times)

This ruling certainly is a “countercurrent to the energy revolution happening in other states.”2 Even if Cuomo went ahead and approved Fracking altogether (still in limbo after six years), a carved up state full of local bans will look very unappetizing to an industry that wants it all. But this is not a bad thing. The ‘revolution,’ more like an insane desire to keep digging when we are already in a hole, is not a real revolution.  A real revolution would be to move away from historic fossil fuels for energy, which have warmed our atmosphere to new levels, and drive towards 100% renewable energy (wind and solar).  In the light of Climate Change, energy options in New York State should not be focused on Fracking in the first place. But it was probably too alluring for the media to hype the Fracking controversy than make a serious investigation of all our energy options in a time of Climate Change. This is to say, there is another revolution that needs to happen: The media needs to adapt to a changing, warming world, and learn to prioritize accordingly. 

Critics of the Court of Appeals decision remark that the ruling was not an indictment on the merits of the Fracking industry, as these alleged merits were never mentioned. In their view, the ruling simply upheld New York State’s NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude, which they see as a real drawback for large industries considering business in New York. Actually, preserving the character of local towns under threat of Fracking is no small matter. Just ask some folks in Pennsylvania being offered money to accept any and all health and quality of life problems introduced since the Fracking industry came to their backyards:

Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front A Pennsylvania gas company offers residents cash to buy protection from any claims of harm. For the last eight years, Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy – drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site. It didn't take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain – about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes. But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations. (July 2, 2014) ProPublica

However, characterizing the anti-Fracking movement as a NIMBY issue is unfair because Fracking will be in everyone’s backyard. The thousands of folks who spoke against Fracking in their local New York communities (some, like Rochester, not even facing an immediate threat by this secretive form of drilling) raised concerns about health effects, threats to water quality, and the looming impact of Climate Change on everyone.

The greatest aftershock (a shock in a good way) of the new ruling would be if Governor Cuomo placed an absolute ban on Fracking in New York State. If Cuomo doesn’t ban Fracking (a fossil fuel) pretty freaking soon, New York will lose that pretty green hue that every sustainability-conscious governor loves to see on national maps:

What Every Governor Really Believes About Climate Change, In One Handy Map  With all the recent talk at the federal level about the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations for new and existing power plants, it’s easy to forget about the executives that have front row seats to cutting American carbon pollution. And though climate deniers run rampant through the halls of Congress, a new analysis from the CAP Action War Room reveals that half of America’s Republican governors agree with the anti-science caucus of Congress. Fifteen out of twenty-nine sitting Republican governors deny climate science despite the overwhelming level of scientific consensus, the enormous cost to taxpayers, and the critical place governors occupy in implementing new limits on carbon pollution. None of the country’s Democratic governors have made public statements denying climate change. This map from the analysis categorizes governors into four groups: green for those who both accept climate science and are taking action to fight climate change; orange for those who either accept or haven’t openly denied climate science, but also have yet to take serious action to address climate change; red for those who have failed to take action or openly rejected to federal safeguards to address climate change, and red with stripes for climate deniers.  (July 2, 2014) Think Progress/Climate Progress